Ray-Ray Armstrong doesn’t fit the mold of a 49ers inside linebacker.
Since the team drafted Patrick Willis in 2007, the inside linebackers have been very Willis-like – about 6 feet tall, approximately 240 pounds, great runners (Willis and NaVorro Bowman were acclaimed high school tailbacks) and better tacklers. Chris Borland, taken in the third round in 2014, was even stumpier at 5-11 and 248 pounds.
Armstrong, one of three players competing for a starting role at inside linebacker, looks more like an edge pass rusher. He’s 6-3 with long legs, long arms and a long neck. The Sanford, Fla., native was the No. 1 safety recruit in the nation in 2009, and he played safety at the University of Miami. He’s an interesting chess piece in coverage against tight ends and running backs.
“At other places I’ve been, what we’ve had to do is in obvious passing situations (is) drop a safety down to play dime linebacker,” defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said this week. “With his skill set and his background of playing in the secondary, we don’t feel right now like we need to do that as a defense. It is a little bit of a first for me, given how athletic he can be and the plays he can make in space.”
Armstrong displayed that skill Saturday during the Denver Broncos’ second offensive drive. Quarterback Trevor Siemian looked right, then left, where running back C.J. Anderson slipped into the flat. Anderson caught the pass and barely had time to look upfield before being enveloped by Armstrong, who played for the Raiders in 2014-15 before being claimed off waivers by the 49ers on Nov. 25, 2015.
Entering the offseason, the 49ers’ coaches wondered if Armstrong’s height and background at safety would allow him to perform the grunt work required of an inside linebacker – take on pulling guards, out-muscle stocky fullbacks and root out runners at the line of scrimmage.
O’Neil said Armstrong has received high marks in that area.
“If you watched the film from the first two weeks, he’s been great,” he said.
Said Armstrong, “I don’t think the height hinders me. It kind of helps me a lot, too, because I can see into the backfield, see over the linemen.”
Michael Wilhoite started against the Houston Texans in the preseason opener, and Gerald Hodges started against the Broncos. Armstrong is expected to start Friday against the Green Bay Packers and their pass-first offense. All three have been rotating into games with every new series and practiced alongside Bowman and the first-team defense in training camp.
They’re all good on special-teams coverage units, too, and O’Neil acknowledged that more than one contender could be incorporated into his game-day defense. The 49ers, for example, might use Hodges on traditional running plays and Armstrong on passing downs.
Wilhoite is the only one of the three versed in both inside linebacker spots, the so-called “Mike” role Bowman plays and the “Will” position up for grabs.
Nick Bellore had been the backup “Mike” linebacker during training camp, but he injured his knee during Saturday’s game and hasn’t practiced this week. That leaves Bowman, Wilhoite and Shayne Skov, who had been on the third-string defense, as the only linebackers who know the spot.
O’Neil insisted he’s in no rush to settle on a starting “Will” linebacker.
“I don’t have a timetable on it,” he said. “I thought all three guys played solid (Saturday). They all made some plays. So like I’ve said before, if it takes to Week 5, Week 6 in the season, I’m fine with that. I’m sure those guys would like to know, but I’m going to put the best 11 out there and if we have 12 or 13 that deserve to play, then those guys will play.”